And now our watch has ended….
On Sunday, the final season of the hit HBO fantasy-drama Game of Thrones came to an end. The show will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important and influential TV shows in history. For better or worse, the story (both in book and TV formats) is the Lord of the Rings of this era. Future storytellers and stories will be influenced by Game of the Thrones the same way current storytellers were influenced by Tolkien.
Whenever something explodes into a pop-culture phenomenon, there are lessons to be learned from it. Pop-culture is a window into the soul of our culture; all the more so when it encompasses such a large portion of the population as Game of Thrones—one of the most watched shows in history.
To be clear, this is not a review of the show itself, nor is it an endorsement or recommendation of it. What follows are simply a few thoughts on what I think the success of Game of Thrones can tell us about today’s culture.
*There ARE some spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned!*
- Expectations vs. Subverted Expectations
The ground-breaking series developed a well-earned reputation as a shocking and unpredictable show. When the story’s primary protagonist is beheaded a mere nine episodes into the first season, viewers know that the series will not be bound by any traditional storytelling tropes. This is largely what made the show so engrossing week-to-week. No character was safe. Good guys didn’t always win. Popular characters didn’t always get to complete a neat and tidy character arc. The infamous “Red Wedding” episode, in which several main characters are murdered in the span of a few minutes, will influence future storytelling for decades.
Ironically, the same subversion of expectations that initially made the show so popular eventually became its most divisive element. At the end of the series, fan-favorite characters relapse back to who they were at the beginning (“undoing” their 8-season long character arcs), the built-up “chosen ones” don’t accomplish what was prophesied, and the heroes who fought against the their worst impulses for 70+ episodes finally succumb to them and end in failure rather than victory.
Lesson: We are wired for traditional storytelling. It seems that Joseph Campbell was not too far off the mark when he proposed that humanity really only tells one story over and over. Deep down—even as anti-heroes have become prevalent—we desire a simple story with familiar meaning and purpose. We want happy endings for good guys and justice for the villains. We want characters to overcome their flaws, not be defeated by them. The subverted expectations in Game of Thrones were enthralling, in part, because there was always the promise that the full story was not yet told and that wrongs would eventually be made right. While I personally enjoyed the bittersweet ending and creative decisions, the widespread dissatisfaction indicates that even in our increasingly progressive culture we are not quite ready to abandon our old metanarratives. Even as modern society rejects the Gospel story, that story remains the desired template for our stories.
2. Worldbuilding Consistency vs. Social Agendas
Although a vastly different storyteller, George R. Martin (the author of the books) is deeply indebted to Tolkien. This is most evident in his rich and comprehensive worldbuilding. Indeed, there are 800+ page books written on the history and mythology of his created world. While much of his sub-creation is of his own imagination, the story is also largely based on the War of Roses (1455-1485).
Despite providing some of the strongest female characters in recent memory—Daenerys, Arya, Sansa, and, yes, even Cersei—the story also portrays a fictional world that is largely unforgiving and demeaning for women (as was 15th century Europe). Unlike its real-world historical inspiration, however, the show was disrupted by the birth of the #MeToo movement.
Suddenly female characters were expected to think and act with a keen 21st century feminist mindset. The series was expected to show modern and powerful women in a world that was based on a historical past when women were among the most powerless. When staying true to its established rules, the show upset large segments of viewers. When the show catered to 21st century expectations, the show betrayed the consistency and believability of its story and worldbuilding. A parallel example and tension can be seen in the show’s portrayal of racial issues and its handling of POC.
Lesson: The Arts are a hotly contested battleground. I fear that in our polarized and digital age of social media, the Arts will soon follow in the footsteps of news media and journalism by merely affirming the popular ideologies of the day rather than challenging or honestly examining them. There is a tendency to appraise art on the basis of our own worldview. A good book, movie, or TV show is one which depicts and affirms our own social, political, or religious convictions, and vice versa. Society is slowly losing the ability to the view today’s modern culture through the lens of Art and stories, and now increasingly demands that we view all Art and stories through the lens of today’s modern culture. We should all worry about the consequences when Art is muffled and, instead of challenging us, merely offers a gentle pat on the back.
3. Art and the Importance of Cultural Conversations
Game of Thrones is the last of a dying breed of “event TV.” In the age of digital streaming and “binge-watching,” the epic drama is one of the few remaining “water cooler shows.” Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once suggested that great art is that which draws people together. This has been a hallmark of all important works of art. Love it or hate it, the discussion that has surrounded Game of Thrones should not be ignored. As viewers, we are certainly not required to like everything put on screen nor are we required to start or continue watching. At the same time, the personal satisfaction of every viewer—besides being an impossible aim—is not the only purpose of Art. Great art sparks important cultural conversations.
In my opinion, the show’s biggest issue is in its often graphic portrayal sex and sexuality. Early seasons of the show frequently used sex as a gimmick to be ‘edgy’ and to convince the general public that a show with dragons could still be “adult” and “mature.” In doing so, the show sparked a needed cultural conversation in the form of backlash and dialogue—some constructive, some not. Consequently, the show (for the most part) adjusted the way it approached sex. Some controversial plot points—such as when Sansa, one of the primary female characters, is raped— are still being debated and discussed three years later.
Lesson: We do not need to like or agree with every (or any) decisions that an artist makes; but neither we should we downplay the importance of the conversations that art invites. I do not think it is appropriate or necessary for all Christians to watch Game of Thrones, or any other popular TV show. At the same time, these cultural conversations are happening whether we decide to watch or not. I have seen many Christians who seem to take pride on social media as they brag each week that they have still not watched a single episode. All the while, our culture continues to have these significant conversations in which Christians have much to contribute, and yet are content to remain silent.